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Famous Diamonds: The Story of the Regent Diamond

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About the Regent diamond and its long and adventurous history.

It’s unthinkable that the regent diamond would ever leave France because it is such an inherent part of French history. It has always been considered the principle jewel in the French crown jewels, more important than the Sancy, Hortensia or hope diamond. However to trace the origin of the regent diamond we need to look back to its first owner Thomas Pitt (1653-1726). Pitt was a wealthy merchant, politician and the grandfather of two British Prime Ministers, William Pitt the Elder and William Pitt the Younger.

Pitt’s endeavors in Oriental trade often embroiled him in disputes with the East India Company. His actions ultimately lead to his arrest and being fined. However being a wealthy man this did not deter him, and he eventually got the upper hand on the Great East India Company when he was elected Member of Parliament for (Salisbury) Old Sacrum. Pitt persisted with his trade ventures which the East India Company found they could no longer control. And so as a solution he was appointed President of Fort Madras in1693.

The Regent is the larger diamond just below the crown.

Exactly how the regent diamond came into Thomas pitt’s procession was unknown. One scandalous account of the episode tarnished Pitt’s name and that of his descendants for many years after. It was said that a slave had found the diamond and then hidden it behind a bandage covering a wound on his body. He then attempted to escape the country by securing passage on a ship. The slave then told the ships skipper that he had a diamond and would share the profit of its sale in return for safe passage. The skipper then betrayed the slave by murdering him and stealing the diamond, which he then sold to Pitt for 1,000 pounds. Thomas Pitt replied to this accusation with a letter stating his side of the story. Pitt’s letter tells of how he became interested in the diamond trade. He said he had purchased a large diamond and other diamonds from a merchant named Jamchund. The diamonds came from the Golconda mine in south central India. This account was apparently verified by a Jewish diamond merchant called Mr. Salomon.

Although the stone had been cut in India it was recut in London to improve it appearance. The resulting diamond was a brilliant cut, 140.5 carats gemstone. Ownership of the Pitt diamond continually put pitt’s life in danger, as he had enemies who would have loved to get their hands on it. So in 1712 Pitt put the diamond up for sale. Pitt tried to sell the diamond to King Louis XIV of France but the king declined. King Louis XIV was succeeded by Louis XV at the age of five, and so Philippe II (Duke of Orleans) acted as governor of France until Louis XV was old enough to become king. Philippe II had expressed an interest and said that France would like to have the diamond. Thomas Pitt sent John Law, a Scottish financer to negotiate the sale of the Pitt diamond. Eventually an agreement of sale was reached between Mr. Law and Philippe II for the sum of 135,000 pounds. With the sale the diamond was renamed the Regent of France.

With this purchase the crown jewels of France had become the premier collection and envy of Europe. King Louis XV wore the Regent diamond in a shoulder ornament on official occasions. And for the wedding of Louis XV to Queen Marie Leszcynska, the regent was set in a headband. Louis XV was succeeded by Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette had the regent and other royal jewels reset. After the French Revolution in 1789 the crown jewels were kept at a treasury. During this time many of the crown jewels were stolen, including the Regent. However the diamond was recovered. The diamond was then used to secure loans to help maintain the French armies.

King Charles X was the last Bourbon King of France.

In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte came to power. He ordered the royal jewels be returned to Paris and for his coronation; two years later he had the regent diamond set in the hilt of his sword. After Napoleons exile in 1814, the diamonds were returned to Louis XVIII. When Louis XVIII heard of Napoleons escape from Elber and return to France, he fled France taking the crown jewels with him. Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo and the second Bourbon dynasty was reestablished. King Charles X, Louis XVIII successor had the regent diamond set in the crown for his coronation.

The Empress Eugenie was empress consort of France 1853 to 1871.

The second empire began and soon after the marriage of Napoleon III to Eugenie in 1853. The emperor and empress had the crown jewels disassembled and new adornments were made, including a diadem that could accommodate the regent diamond. With the end of the second empire came the third republic. A proposal was made to sell the crown jewels and eventually passed by the French senate. In 1887 the French crown jewels went up for sale but its most valuable diamond wasn’t included. The decision was made to preserve this important part of French heritage and history. The diamond was to go on display permanently at the Galerie d’Apollon in Paris. And there it has remained since. Its only hazardous time was during the Second World War when it was removed from Paris and hidden in the wall of a chateau in the Loire. Fortunately it was never found by the enemy and was returned to Paris in 1945.

All photos from commons.wikimedia.com


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Peter Bilton

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